It irritated Brian Freeland when the teen boy walked into the breakfast room, headphones blaring, reciting the expletive-filled lyrics about robbery.
“How are we going to start off the day like that?” Freeland thought.
He’s teacher and manager of a program that’s not your typical summer camp. At this mentorship program for black teen boys, the idea is to get the 40 hand-picked participants thinking about leadership and attending college.
It’s the second summer of the Emerging Leaders Mentorship Program for Black Males – which also goes by the attention-getting name of Save Our Black Boys. The program is at Barber-Scotia College in Concord this summer and kicked off this week.
Freeland used the teen with the headphones as a teachable moment – which lasted nearly two hours in the college library. He and assistant manager Brian Bulluck wove in the example of the explicit lyrics with the prepared history lesson covering slavery, international conflicts, and the black legacy of valuing education.
And he challenged the teen listening to the music to stand up, repeat the offensive lines, and then explain if he knew what the words really meant. (He didn’t).
“Music gets into your spirit. Just be careful what you let into your system,” Bulluck said.
“For those who don’t know,” Freeland told the teens, “I’m building leaders here.”
The idea behind the nonprofit program, started by volunteers, is fueled by stark statistics showing black male teens trailing their counterparts in graduating high school, passing standardized tests, avoiding crime and jail, and pursuing college. The program enrolls 14- through 17-year-olds from Cabarrus, Gaston, Mecklenburg and York counties, said program founder Susan Woods, who works in technical training at Wells Fargo.
Word has spread in the past year. Donors to the program include local philanthropists Ron and Katherine Harper; national radio host Michael Baisden, as part of his One Million Mentors national campaign; and Gang of One, which is part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. That group gave a $6,280 grant this year so that 25 teens from the Clanton Park community can join the program starting July 5..
The goal is to keep the teens involved until they graduate high school. Twenty-five teens from last year’s inaugural group remain in the program, with some working as peer counselors with the group this year. Others are expected to work in paid or unpaid internships this summer as program leaders find places for them.
This summer’s teens will spend six weeks hearing from more than 70 black male mentors in a variety of fields, from law to medicine to business to politics. They’ll also spend several hours every Friday morning beautifying the Barber-Scotia campus, which is hosting the program for free. The historically black college is working toward re-establishing accreditation after losing it in 2004.
Barber-Scotia President David Olah has seen the teens this week walking across campus, playing chess in the lunchroom, and presenting themselves in white shirts and ties during the induction ceremony at the college chapel.
“They’re trying to educate the total person,” Olah said.
The Emerging Leaders program has hit some bumps.
Out of last year’s group of 40 teens, 15 are out of the program, Woods said: Three couldn’t stay involved after a car accident totaled their only form of transportation. Two dropped out. Seven were expelled due to insubordination, from rude behavior to trying to recruit gang members from within the program. Three were expelled after they got arrested.
“I’m not proud they didn’t make it,” said Freeland, a history teacher at Garinger High School and Charlotte’s 2009 Teacher of the Year.
This prompted Freeland and Bulluck, a special education teacher at a Charlotte alternative school, to conduct face-to-face interviews of every boy before accepting anyone into the program this year.
The interview was a bit stressful, said Rico Kennedy, 14, a rising sophomore at Clover High School in York County. “They asked you a lot of tough questions. They asked what are problems facing black males in our community, how does President Obama influence us, what can you do to make your community better.”
But Kennedy said he sees how those questions prepared him for that day’s challenging dialogue in the library.
“We have so much strength in this room,” Freeland told the teens. “If we use it to help each other, there’s no one that can stop us.”